Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Brutal honesty has been a running theme of Hanson’s career, and he has caused some controversy because of it, though it is nearly always overblown. Simler has a similar approach in his research, and the two make a good pair in this book. Mostly a blend of psychology and economics, Simler and Hanson explore why people lie to themselves as well as to others in justifying their actions in a number of spheres, from work to romance to everyday life.

The drawbacks of this are obvious, from the lies themselves to the bad behaviors they can enable and rationalize. But the benefits are an avoidance of cognitive dissonance and negative views of self and others. Total honesty would decimate nearly everyone’s sense of self-worth, as well as peoples’ ability to trust and interact with others.

In that sense, Hanson and Simler have put together a view of human nature that mixes Hobbe’s nasty and brutish view of human nature with a David Hume- or Adam Smith-style emphasis on humanity’s inherent need for social interaction. As Smith put it, people need both to love and be lovely (by which Smith means worthy of being loved). Reconciling the two is a messy business, but Hanson and Simler do it uncomfortably well, backing their arguments with plenty of empirical research.

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